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Spiderhead Signals Our Increasing Apathy Toward Technocratic Dystopias

Spiderhead is a biting, Black Mirror-adjacent parable about the perils of corporate control. More specifically, this adaptation of a New Yorker short story chronicles the downfall of an innovator/scientist, Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), as he gradually sidelines human decency in the pursuit of perfecting a groundbreaking line of designer drugs. To refine the effects and tweak his product, Steve first recruits and then analyzes real-life convicts like lab rats as they exhibit the varied psychological effects of hormone-altering substances. And as one might expect, given America’s dark history with the topic, the fine line between ethical priorities and aspirational science turns disturbingly nebulous/murky.

All this plays out in a claustrophobic setting: at a remote, opulent, and militaristic-looking oceanside facility that appears deceptively spotless and sleek. The glossy sheen of the “Spiderhead” correctional facilities works as an overt visual metaphor for the misleading sterility and antiseptic guise of landscapes like Silicon Valley—places where mind-altering, body-controlling drugs/systems are ostensibly being tested, manufactured, broadcast, and transmitted every day.

An exterior shot of the bunker-style, seaside Abnesti headquarters.

In fact, one might argue the entire Spiderhead facilities are modeled to mimic your average Internet Age HQ. The plot cleverly doubles as a cautionary tale against an ungoverned Silicon Valley, as well—making unwitting human agents the passive subject of the volatile whims of endorphin/serotonin-manipulated psycho-chemical simulations. The scientific apparatus at play clearly gradually becomes a personified/embodied microcosm of social media itself; paralleling the mad experimental composition of modernity’s hyper-real environments.

A stand-in/proxy for any pernicious tech CEO, Steve Abnesti is played humorously by Hemsworth, who humanizes the entrepreneur via broad satirical strokes. Abnesti is nefariously in control; he’s also a half-competent buffoon. He spends his days lording over his immaculate, cliffside “penitentiary.” Like any modish start-up, the Abnesti headquarters is decked out with state-of-the-art amenities and toys. But the allure of all this stuff is a masquerade.

The company’s on-site perks and freebies (the expensive spiral staircases, state-of-the-art espresso makers, shimmering glass facades, and miscellaneous perks) all work to cover-up the shackles—concealing the invisible technologies, tracking devices, and mind-controlling gadgets. Yet, while the lodging and eating spaces are teeming with cutting-edge toys and elegant surfaces, the “lab” itself resembles a concrete bunker. The contrast works: after all, Spiderhead is both Abnesti’s corporate headquarters and an actual prison. This conflation is thus not as incongruous as it sounds—the two domains (prisons and corporations) have endless parallels.

Chris Hemsworth, playing Steve Abnesti, watches subjects in a fictionalized chemical-enhancement study with a spiral staircase behind him.

Whatever side of the coin one chooses to see, there is no denying one thing: Steve Abnesti is neurotically preoccupied with finalizing his dogged research on his prospective product, the MobiPak. Pitching the possibilities of this chemical-enhancing contraption, he extols the virtues of modern science as a solution to mankind’s psychological and emotional distress and yet exploits his very focal point in the process (once again, not an unrealistic scenario). There’s little doubt that Abnesti, at least, holds genuine curiosity and sees utility to the entire operation. When Steve’s tinkering and studies prove positive ends, he privately calibrates the digitized chemical cocktails for his own decadence: retreating for an evening of delirious ecstasy, euphoria, and so forth. Viewer beware, though: like all drugs, the MobiPak can be laced/retuned in dangerous ways.

A second warning: most drugs undergo countless trial runs before being permitted by bureaucratic bearers of red tape. And as with any trial, there are bound to be bountiful errors. Aware of this predicament, Abnesti wisely manipulates ostensible socio-political loopholes to prey on the incarcerated and the unfree — transplanting guilty/debilitated souls from various penitentiaries to partake in his mad dystopian experiment (filled with perverse power dynamics that are reminiscent, at times, of the Stanford Prison Experiment). He sells the exchange as a beneficial, even symbiotic, trade-off: the convicts get to enjoy luxurious accommodations, and he gets to toy with them for “the sake of science”/future capital gain.

Of course, like all corporate power-mongers, Abnesti will push his authority too far. And he will do so while outwardly presenting a smirk of sophistry—wielding a convivial demeanor to make it seem like he’s the good guy. Accordingly, one of the best reveals in recent memory is the moment when Jeff (Miles Teller) realizes Steve is a rogue scientist running the whole show, despite having constantly deflected responsibility as a supposed cog/underling.

The unveiling of Abnesti as a fraud further resembles the role of powerful manipulators in the digital age/market: like Steve, internet tycoons have proven an uncanny dexterity when it comes to rerouting blame via easy equivocation. Scarily, the amorphous and decentralized spheres of the largely unregulated Internet provide a safe haven for evil operators: Anyone can just play dumb, blameless, or point somewhere else. Nevertheless, Abnesti, representing most Silicon Valley figures, is clearly not seeking to start a genuinely magnanimous enterprise. Greed, slathered in false philanthropy and geniality, dominates his agenda.

Chris Hemsworth plays Steve Abnesti, overlooking participants in a study

The setup and premise of Spiderhead may sound simple, and the film’s execution is certainly straightforward, but the cumulative satirical effect is quite potent. The way convicts/test subjects engage in repeated scenarios with diminishing agency feels hauntingly similar to the panoptical fabric of the virtual omni-sphere. Their responses and reactions may feel real/immersive on an experiential level (providing sensory stimulation to the actors subsumed in the game/experiment), yet every interaction is pre-engineered and pre-orchestrated from above. This, once again, is just like ordinary participants on contemporary online forums and platforms, who find themselves invisibly micromanaged by invisible levers that strategically arrange/rearrange topical structures, trigger emotional receptors, and recode contexts at every click.

Like the convicts being administered Darkenfloxx (an even scarier form of MK-Ultra), we may feel free when we meme or retweet on a micro level; on a macro scale, however, our role closely mirrors that of complaint ants or worker bees. At the end of the day, we are belaboring conduits of digital energy set into motion to accrue more and more capital. We may feel temporary catharsis or elation as we endlessly smack our keyboards, but this binary code input/output ultimately serves the overarching function of building mammoth amounts of revenue for a select oligarchy, who constantly monitor/mine/redefine our actions by keeping supervision via countless corporate trackers & microscopes.

Spiderhead offers more than an alarm signal. It proceeds to also present how one might escape a system that is predetermined by the dials and controls of a system/overseer operating behind a window/screen — i.e., the pharmaceutical/tech company. As the pursuit of information becomes more lucrative, the trial-runs and small-print find darker, smaller, more insidious passageways to infiltrate our everyday existence. Yet, there is always a glimmer of autonomy left to be seized.

Miles Teller, Chris Hemsworth, and Mark Paguio appear together in an rare, exterior shot from Spiderheard.

For one, a potential whistleblower can emerge, as happens in Spiderhead—as an Abnesti’s latently disgruntled and outraged henchman, Mark (Mark Paguio), decides to collude with the exploited class of users/subjects, undermining his CEO’s beloved study. This morally indignant henchman must have tremendous fortitude and fury just to illuminate the dark beast lurking beneath all the shiny, reflective packaging. To actually topple the structure requires infinitely more sagacity and perseverance—one must go toe-to-toe with an evil pantheon of modern tech moguls, who are undeterred, obdurate, and relentless when it comes to retaining their monopolistic stranglehold on market territories, webpages, and enslaved domains of human consciousness.

True freedom and sovereignty thus require opting out with endless stamina and endurance. However, even this has become increasingly complicated given that the hypothetical power behind the market is increasingly decentered, anonymous, everywhere. In some ways, even the corporations are dumbfounded by the intricacies of it all and equally lassoed to the same machinery—forced to pander to and appease pitchfork-wielding shareholders. These shareholders, in turn, are simultaneously the very user-victims of the market they fund.

Thus, on one end, corporate power looms over society, holding our collective thought processes hostage, while on the other end, independent citizens perennially occupy the minds of entrepreneurial executives — buying or selling without any moral allegiance beyond the fact they satisfy market expectations and key metrics. The circularity of power here is the greatest irony of all—insofar as both the Everyman and the CEO are stuck in a lose-lose stalemate, holding each other maniacally accountable with zero wiggle room to escape. And because it is so difficult to see beyond economic incentives, we all keep playing the same game on repeat for trickle-down economics/diluted money—whether that profit arrives via dividends, influencer hits, digital marketing, corporate salaries, or stocks.

In the present nexus of pervasive bad actors and elusive entrapments, the only potential disruption comes in the form of disengagement. When an entire system, from top to bottom, survives on selfish and cyclical economic motivations that perpetuate an information treadmill on repeat, one must be able to sever both the hand that eats and the hand that feeds. Oddly enough, such an act of disengagement must arise from the unyielding zeal of a genuinely desiring body—from a human spirit with the right blend of purpose, nihilism, and fervor to supersede the noise.

Spiderhead's Psycho Scientist, Steve Abnesti (played by Chris Hemsworth) explains his evil experiments in friendly terms to Jeff (Miles Teller).

Like countless classic psycho-social dystopian fables, Spiderhead delivers a hero in the form of Jeff, who has both little to lose and a lot to love. The marginalized conditions of this character open up the window for another way of being: an alternative system. And the film affirmatively ends on this positive equation—with love being the defining factor that allows our protagonist to break free from the tyrannical rigidity of a totalitarian machine.

Sure, the quick denouement may not break the mold, but Spiderhead is not nearly as tepid or bland as people make it out to be. In many ways, the film offers a stylish upgrade on a familiar cynicism — relocating corporate exploitation in a novel setting. This lukewarm response is perhaps most unnerving of all: Not because the film is spectacular by any means (Don Shanahan effectively points out its confusing tonal shifts and narrative flaws), but because its warranted paranoia and incisive suspicions seem to have fallen on jaded, apathetic ears. I’m beginning to fear we’d treat an actual zombie/ecological apocalypse with the same neutrality and disinterest.

After all, such scenarios are now played-out tropes—viewed as hackneyed and banal. Through excesses of fiction, we have exhausted our dread/anxiety about our desolate future—desensitized ourselves via rampant representation in cinema, art, and the media. Our stories have so tirelessly run every ominous scenario into the ground that the zeitgeist now stares pudgy-faced at our harrowing future—unimpressed, indifferent, and impassive about its bleakness. We’re quickly becoming bored of our own undoing.

Written by Paul Keelan

Paul Keelan currently resides in Phoenix, AZ with his wife and cat. He has toured the continental US multiple times as a bassist playing rock jams, lived / traveled / taught abroad for over five years (primarily in Asia), and watched an unhealthy amount of movies.

When not writing about cinema for 25YL and Letterboxd, or working on his travel novels / novellas, he spends free time reenacting imaginary montage sequences as he records, edits, and cohosts the spectacular sports movie podcast Cinematic Underdogs.


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  1. Thanks for reading, and I’m stoked to hear you got a lot out of it. To add one caveat, I’d include the importance of remaining most suspicious of any ideas held most dearly. For example, after writing this I’ve mulled over my anti-Tech ideological leanings quite a bit: What facts/truths are they actually grounded in? How much is hearsay? Who might be engineering this branch of dissent? My positions were not facetiously written, but nevertheless, I still actively question them. After all, the instinct to definitively side or subscribe to favored opinions is what imperils intellectual honesty and liberty in our current media-scape. Everything is distorted, filtered, garbled. Be wary in every direction.

  2. I wonder how surprised (shocked?) you will be to find out that this 60 year old, conservative Christian agrees with you. I see the fruit of our willful acquiescence daily, manifest in cancel culture, chronicled in Tik Tok and YouTube videos that glorify our mindless obedience. This is singularly evident in the ubiquitous wokeness that cloaks itself in the now meaningless verbiage of freedom. The individuals autonomy is actually being usurped by those who claim to champion it, all in the name of the greater good.

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